How-To Geek

Ask HTG: Accessing USB in Virtual Machines, Automatically Straighten Scanned Photos, and Product Key Recovery

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Once a week we share some of the reader questions we answer in the Ask HTG roundup; today we’re looking at accessing USB drives in Virtual Machines, how to automatically straighten and crop scanned photos, and how to recover product keys off an old computer.

Accessing USB Drives in Virtual Machines


Dear How-To Geek,

How can I use a USB drive and Microsoft Sync Toy to backup data from a Virtual Machine? By default the USB drive plugged into the host computer doesn’t appear in my Virtual Machine.


Backing Up in Boise

Dear Backing Up,

You need to set up a pass-through system for your USB drive so that the physical port and drive on the physical host is passed through to the VM. Just so we cover the bases, here’s how to do it in VMWare’s Virtual Machine, in VirtualBox, and in Microsoft’s Virtual PC.

Automatically Straighten and Crop Scanned Images


Dear How-To Geek,

First of all, very nice website. I love all the Linux coverage as I’m a new convert. To my question, I’m in the process of scanning my family’s entire photo album. I just scan as many pictures that will fit per scan to shorten the amount of time it will take.

Some of my pictures are tilted and need to be straightened. So now  I have a couple hundred scanned images of 4-6 pictures that I’ve been needing to crop and straighten manually. I know Photoshop has this ability but I’m a college student and don’t have that kind of money to be spending right now. I need a feature similar the automated crop and straighten feature found in Photoshop. Any ideas? My system is running the latest and greatest Ubuntu edition (64-bit). Thank you for any suggestions.


Scanning in Sacramento

Dear Scanning,

There are a couple ways you can approach this problem. Since you’re a student you could possibly check around and see if you can score access to a computer lap on campus with Photoshop installed. You could also pick up a copy of Photoshop Elements for under $100 with a student discount and use the Divide Scanned Photos function.

Barring that, you can do everything for free if you use GIMP on your Linux system. There is a script for GIMP called, appropriately, the Divide Scanned Images Tool. Here’s a write up of how to install and use it. The GIMP script will get the job done but some of the settings are counterintuitive. Make sure to try it out on a copy of your images and read the instructions on the tutorial carefully. Good luck!

Recovery Windows Product Keys from Damaged Computer

Dear How-To Geek,

A computer of mine recently died. The hard drive is fine, however, and I’ve been able to pull it from the machine and mount it in another computer. I’d like to pull old product keys off of it but I don’t know where to start. Any ideas?


Key Collecting in Kansas

Dear Key Collecting,

Getting it out of the old machine and into a new machine (or an appropriate HDD dock) is the hard part. What you need to do is check out our tutorial on product key recovery here. You’ll have your keys backed up in a matter of minutes.

Have a pressing tech question? Shoot us an email at and we’ll do our best to answer it.

Jason Fitzpatrick is a warranty-voiding DIYer who spends his days cracking opening cases and wrestling with code so you don't have to. If it can be modded, optimized, repurposed, or torn apart for fun he's interested (and probably already at the workbench taking it apart). You can follow him on if you'd like.

  • Published 10/17/11

Comments (10)





  3. Paul Iafolla

    Um, yeah, those Virtual PC settings might be a little off:


    Microsoft Virtual PC for Mac Version 6.1

  4. MangaFalzy

    Warren, I know this doesn’t answer your question, but WHY? I can’t even begin to explain how much better 7 is than XP. What exactly do you “HATE” about it? Most parts of the system can be tweaked to give you more of a classic or XP feel. Not to mention 7 is safer, more secure, and in theory easier to use and with more features. If you MUST install XP. (Which again, I highly DO NOT recommend…) You can insert the XP install CD, then once it kicks into the installer, do advanced install or something like that and erase the 7 drive, then install. And once AGAIN, Windows XP is a 10 year old OS. It is a dinosaur. The only reason why many people still use it in businesses and what not is because it is either to expensive, or too much of a hassle to upgrade. Others may have some odd poorly codded crappy software that only runs on XP. Which in that case, you can use Windows XP mode. Hope that helps. (If it didn’t just confuse you more… :-P I usually write something long like this, read it back, then find out it’s illegible but get too lazy to fix it… LOL)

  5. Aaron

    It it is a newer laptop it probably has SATA hard drive and XPwill not see that newer drive unless you slipstream a SATA driver into a new iso image and burn a new XP cd.

  6. Henfracar

    Hi Warren,
    If I were in your position I would make a system image of your Lappy before installing XP. This way if and when you need to go back/forward to Win7 you will not need to purchase a new install disc.
    I have installed xpsp3 on a desktop which had SATA drives so that shoul not be a problem.
    Hope this helps.

  7. Cudgoe

    Is this helpful when I want to reinstall Windows 7 and/or Office 2010 on the same computer or a new one?
    I’ve always been paranoid that once I install any of these products, I can’t install them again if my hard drive fails or I need to re-partition, or I get a new PC.

  8. davesathome

    Google Picasa will straighten images and it’s free!

  9. shakori

    Has anyone ever thought about feeding the catv signals on the power grid thus getting rid of the cable co.’s monopoly and crappy service.

  10. Anonymous


    In response to Warren’s dislike of Windows 7 – where he wants to install XP over 7 – you replied:

    [If] it is a newer laptop it probably has [a] SATA hard drive and XP will not see that newer drive unless you slipstream a SATA driver into a new iso image and burn a new XP cd.

    I disagree. That advice really doesn’t apply to 99.9-percent of computer users. (I might even say 100% if it weren’t for some idiotic piece of hardware out there that just won’t work any other way – and which is usually due to bad design/engineering.)

    What you’re probably thinking of may be SCSI and/or RAID support. Because with SCSI / RAID, it’s a very common need to get those devices up and working before you can even proceed to install Windows. But with SATA, you probably don’t need to worry about anything beyond checking/setting the BIOS.

    Whether or not a SATA drive can be seen and used really depends on the BIOS. There’s almost never any need to do any kind of slip streaming of SATA controller drivers in the Windows installation medium if the BIOS already allows some kind of I/O to the SATA device. And since we’re talking about a laptop it’s almost a guarantee that the BIOS does indeed see the SATA hard drive. Therefore, slip steaming would seem to be a wasted effort unless there were also other more important things being included (slip streamed in) like service packs, security updates, etc. So my point is that slip streaming better drivers all by itself into the Windows installation medium is really kind of silly especially when you consider that you can probably do it even easier after Windows is installed.

    …And it’s even sillier when you realize that the optical drives from where Windows is usually installed from are also SATA devices. So installing drivers for something that’s already working kind of falls along the same reasoning of “don’t fix it if it ain’t broke.”

    Now, once Windows is installed you probably will want to update a few drivers to get better performance — especially when it comes to video support or even providing the ability to burn optical disks. And with Windows XP it’s almost critical that you do this too. In fact, installing chipset drivers is often a huge prerequisite. However, with Windows 7 it’s often been done for you which is another good reason to stop using (or installing) XP.

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